Sunday Whisky Blether #2 - Stephanie MacLeod

Aberfeldy is best known for its standard bottlings at the ages of 12, 16 and 21 years, but recently three new bottlings in the "exceptional casks" series came onto the market - all created by master blender Stephanie MacLeod. Like so many Master Blenders, she has a scientific background - and a special talent that must be available regardless of whether you are in the fields of sensor technology.

The Aberfeldy distillery in the Highland region of Scotland looks back on over a century of tradition. Founded in 1896 by the brothers John and Tommy Dewar, it has been part of the Bacardi Group since 1998, as have the Craigellachie and Aultmore distilleries. We wanted to know more about Stephanie MacLeod and her work and asked Aberfeldy for a written interview with her. Find below our questions and their answers about their life, the distillery and the whiskys from there.

WDF: Hiya Stephanie, thanks very much for your time. We wonder if there was a point in your life when you decided "I want to get into the whisky industry" or did it just “happen” to you?

Stephanie: My first job after graduation was in the soft drink industry. I hadn't even finished my first year when my former project manager from Strathclyde University asked me if I wanted to join his group as a research scientist and study Scottish whisky teaching there, among other things. I didn't know anything about whisky at first. I didn't realize I liked whisky until I started to experience the complexity of this liquor. I was fascinated by the way whisky plays with the senses and the variety of factors that influence the taste. From then on I was fired up and there was no going back.

WDF: How do you become a Master Blender? What was your background up to your current position at Aberfeldy?

Stephanie: There is no prescribed way to become a Master Blender - my career in the Scottish Whisky category started as an assistant at the University of Strathclyde before I started working at Dewar's Distillery. After about a year, I started to create our first sensor panel - every component of Dewar’s whisky is smelled and tasted to ensure that it is of the highest quality. Shortly afterwards the question arose whether I would consider a training to become a Master Blender in order to succeed the Master Blender at that time. Of course, I didn't have to think for a second to accept this offer. In 2006 I was appointed Master Blender.

WDF: Is this a profession that can be learned or do you have “untraceable” skills that make you a good blender? Or to put it another way: is it a craft or an art?

Stephanie: The ability to blend is a balance between art and science, which must be mastered with the utmost perfection. It is incredibly important that knowledge is passed down through generations, but each Master Blender must also have their own experience in order to add their personal touch.

WDF: Let's talk about Aberfeldy: If you had to describe Aberfeldy whisky as a person, how would you characterize it?

Stephanie: The character of Aberfeldy as a young spirit is fruity, grassy and grain-heavy. Notes of honey and heather appear in the ongoing ripening process. It is exciting, of course, that the whisky takes on the oak character of the barrels with increasing age.

WDF: How do you create this character? Is there anything special about Aberfeldy's equipment and what else is involved?

Stephanie: The character of Aberfeldy is shaped by a number of different factors, such as the relatively long fermentation and the increased copper contact. The barrels we use for aging are also incredibly important. We mature with bourbon, sherry and refill barrels, which significantly influence the taste of the whisky.

WDF: How do you create a new whisky? Are you asked to create a special taste profile or do you suggest something yourself because you consider it a suitable addition to the range?

Stephanie: The production of a new whisky requires a clear understanding of the maturing process, the character of the spirit and the amount required - the requirement usually comes from our whisky drinkers around the world, but also through suggestions from me and my team.

WDF: How long does it take from the first idea to a taste vision?

Stephanie: It basically depends on the product that is being planned. But usually I have a few months to develop the first trial versions of the blends.

WDF: We are currently seeing a lot of different finishes from different distilleries. What do you make of it? Are you concerned that diversity destroys individuality (in terms of distillery character, regional character) or does industry need this diversity?

Stephanie: The various distilleries with their different barrel designs enrich the entire market and show the different facets of this exciting and extraordinary spirit. The purpose of the refinement is to complement the basic taste profile of the whiskey and not to dominate it. The refinements from the various houses are therefore an important method to represent the respective character of the distillery.

WDF: What are your thoughts on the opportunities and risks for whisky and the manufacturers in the coming years?

Stephanie: The future is very promising for Scottish whisky. Provided we keep it interesting and relevant for our existing and future whisky lovers. We plan this with extraordinary barrel creations that we would like to establish on the market again and again. A good example of this is the 15-year-old Aberfeldy, which is stored in red wine barrels made from Pomerol and thus obtains an exquisite finish.

WDF: Thanks Stephanie! Slàinte Mhath

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